Commentary | Education

Lessons—Teacher Shortages Vanish When the Price Is Right

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Teacher shortages vanish when the price is right

By  Richard Rothstein

Education analysts often say the nation faces a looming teacher shortage. Growing enrollment and the retirement of baby-boom teachers will aggravate the need, as will a new federal law that bans unqualified teachers.

But this year in New York City, the shortage mostly disappeared, despite the difficult conditions in many urban schools. Qualified teachers flocked to New York for starting salaries of $39,000 a year, up from $32,000 in 2001. Those with experience elsewhere started as high as $61,000. Certified teachers left parochial schools, the suburbs and other professions to work for the city. A slow economy helped by offering college graduates fewer options in the private sector.

New York’s experience suggests there never was a shortage, only an unwillingness of qualified teachers to work at previous pay levels. This will come as no surprise to economists, who say that real shortages are rare in a market economy. At the right price, supply grows to meet demand.

There might have been a temporary real shortage if there were no qualified teachers willing to work at any price. But this was never the case.

Nationwide, only about two-thirds of new education graduates take teaching jobs. Of those who do teach, nearly one-third quit within five years. Although some may have been unsuited for the role, many leave education because they get better offers elsewhere. So there is a big pool of qualified teachers out there, ready to re-enter the profession when the price is right.

The shortage seems more real in some specialties: high school math and science, special and bilingual education and schools in high-poverty communities. But here too, there is no actual shortage.

Teachers in middle-class areas will move to disadvantaged schools if salaries in poor neighborhoods rise above suburban rates. The differential has to be big enough to compensate for the greater skill and dedication required. Professionals in other fields, including those with math and science degrees, will take up teaching if salaries in education are competitive. If apparent shortages remain, schools can raise salaries in shortage areas to induce college students to major in fields where lucrative teaching jobs beckon.

An impediment to this market solution is the tradition of paying all teachers on a common scale. This makes no economic sense. If it is harder to find high school math than English teachers, salaries for teaching math should rise. The gap should grow until the math shortage eases.

Likewise, with a surplus of suburban elementary school teachers and a shortage of urban ones, urban schools should pay more than suburban ones until the supply is balanced.

Impeding this approach is how we typically finance schools. Urban districts often depend on property taxes for revenue and cannot raise salaries to compete with property-rich suburban neighbors. So federal and state subsidies for urban teacher salaries are needed.

Yet for three decades, urban school leaders in many states have pressed for such subsidies, with only inconsistent success. In New York, the candidates for governor, H. Carl McCall and Gov. George E. Pataki, are now sparring about whether to oppose a court decision that said the state had no constitutional duty to expand its subsidies for urban schools.

Another difficulty is the reluctance of teachers’ unions to negotiate different pay for different specialties. Union leaders fear this will lead to bad feelings. But all social differentials can create bad feelings. In fact, that is the idea. If teachers in surplus areas feel badly enough, they will become certified in shortage areas.

Local, state and federal policies are taking small steps in this direction. New York City teachers can get a 15 percent bonus for work at the most difficult schools. The state has a program that provides an added $3,400 a year for such assignments.

Many states now subsidize the tuition of prospective teachers who agree to work in shortage areas. The federal government sells some housing at half-price to teachers who not only teach but live in poor neighborhoods. California gives certificates for a federal income tax credit to those who teach in shortage areas.

Bills now before Congress would give income tax credits to teachers in low-income schools. But the amounts are tiny ($1,000 in the Senate version, $2,000 in the House), too small to induce much growth in supply. The bills also do not provide incentives for teachers, other professionals and college students to switch fields to subject areas that are most in need.

But the bills take steps in the right direction. They acknowledge that a real shortage is mythical. As in most of the economy, if demand for teachers is bolstered with enough new dollars, supply will emerge to soak those dollars up.

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